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Leo Varadkar’s high stakes diplomatic offensive to avert a post-Brexit hard border in Ireland has plunged into chaos as his minority government faces sudden collapse over a years-long policing scandal.

In a night of drama in Dublin that has raised the prospect of a snap election, Mr Varadkar backed his deputy prime minister in the face of opposition demands for her to quit over claims she mishandled attempts by police chiefs to discredit a whistleblower who exposed malpractice in the force. The affair dates back to 2006.

The prime minister told an emergency meeting of his parliamentary party late on Thursday that he was obliged to defend Frances Fitzgerald against a “trumped-up charge from the opposition” after two parties tabled no-confidence motions against her.

With his government on the brink, Mr Varadkar’s attention will be pulled away from an international diplomatic campaign that is supposed to define Ireland’s relations with the UK and Europe after Brexit. The imminent threat to Mr Varadkar’s government comes only five months after the 38-year-old prime minister took power from Enda Kenny.

The motion from Fianna Fáil, the largest opposition party, is in defiance of a political agreement with the prime minister’s party that requires it to abstain from confidence votes against ministers.

Frances Fitzgerald, Ireland’s deputy prime minister © AFP

There is considerable anger in his administration at the turn of events, with MPs and officials accusing Fianna Fáil of a breach of confidence at a time of rising Anglo-Irish tension over Brexit and when next year’s budget has yet to be enacted by parliament.

Mr Varadkar is likely to hold talks on Friday with Micheál Martin, Fianna Fáil’s leader but few are optimistic that they will come to an agreement. “The risk of an election is real — with Brexit most people in the parliamentary party believe that an election would be madness,” said one ally of the prime minister.

Even if Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin reach agreement to save the administration, government figures said the breakdown in relations means any reprieve might not endure. “This has certainly shortened the lifetime of this government,” said one.

Fianna Fáil has signalled it will force an election if Ms Fitzgerald does not go, meaning Mr Varadkar faces a choice between sacking his deputy or the final collapse of the voting agreement that enables his government to pass laws. To applause from his MPs at their meeting, Mr Varadkar insisted he would not allow his deputy to be “thrown under the bus”.

The political turmoil, which escalated rapidly on Thursday, has dealt a severe blow to Dubin’s intensive Brexit diplomacy. Ahead of a summit in Brussels next month the Irish prime minister has been pressing Theresa May to provide binding guarantees — before the start of trade talks — that would definitively rule out customs checks at the Irish border when the UK leaves the EU.

The British premier’s refusal to provide such written commitments has led Mr Varadkar, who fears Brexit will harm the Irish economy and the Northern Irish peace process, to threaten to veto the opening of Europe’s trade negotiation with the UK in mid-December.

The growing crisis in Dublin comes as European leaders race to settle a deal with London in less than three weeks, with no sign of an end to the stalemate. The Irish prime minister’s stance in the talks on the border is complicated by the fact that Dublin needs an EU-UK trade deal to avoid damage to a trading relationship with Britain that was worth €65bn in 2015.

Mr Varadkar’s trip to an EU-Africa summit next week in Ivory Coast, at which he has scheduled bilateral meetings on Brexit with 12 leaders, is now in doubt.

Fine Gael insisted it “does not want a general election” after its MPs voted unanimously to back Mr Varadkar’s number two. The party described Fianna Fáil’s move against Ms Fitzgerald and an earlier motion from the Sinn Féin opposition party as “a political stunt, pure and simple”.

Ms Fitzgerald’s critics say she knew about, but did nothing to avert, attempts by lawyers for a former chief of police to question the motives of Sgt Maurice McCabe, who exposed the practice of senior police quashing driver penalty points for reasons of nepotism or favouritism. Ms Fitzgerald has been under pressure since it emerged this week that she received an email in May 2015 informing her of the legal strategy against Sgt McCabe, despite saying previously that she did not learn of it until a year later.

Ms Fitzgerald argues that she forgot about the email, played no part in the police chief’s strategy and had no power to intervene, since the matter was being heard before a judge-led inquiry. But the opposition parties said she was no longer fit to serve in government.

Fianna Fáil MPs are due to meet at 9.30am on Friday. “We are just being clear and straight with them, that if there is a vote next week we cannot vote confidence in the [deputy prime minister],” said Jim O’Callaghan, the party’s justice spokesman. He insisted his party did not want an election but “so be it” if that was the consequence of its move against Ms Fitzgerald.

The policing affair, which has damaged the standing of the Garda Síochána, has already led to the departure of two successive chiefs of police, most recently in September, and the departure of a previous justice minister in 2014. It was compounded by separate revelations that police exaggerated the number of alcohol breath tests carried out on motorists by almost 2m.

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